Why this is contemporary

Boris Grouys

An interview with Boris Groys and Kristian von Hornsleth (moderation: Jörg Scheller)
Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, October 2006.

Jörg Scheller: Mr. Groys, in your opinion: Is there a provocative aspect to Hornsleth's latest artwork, the Uganda Village Project? Or rather: Is it still possible to provoke with art projects at all?

Boris Groys: Well, probably it is. It is always interesting for me to look at the general background of an artwork. I do not know a lot about Danish art, but I was reminded of the last two films by Lars von Trier, especially "Dogville", where a young lady tries to be the benefactor of a village, and "Mandalay". These films are very different from Hornsleth's project, on the other hand, they are somehow connected to it because here we also have a Danish artist interested in the European attitude to the Non-European. So both are dealing with the same problematic in a provocative way that is not subjected to the rules of of political correctness as it is established. I am not informed much about Danish culture but it is interesting for me that since one decade or one and a half we have this intervention from Denmark, a country without colonial background...

Kristian von Hornsleth: With very little. We had the Virgin Islands but we sold them. The king sold them in a game of cards. And we have Greenland.

Boris Groys: Yes, you have Greenland. And you also have this the political-anti-political correctness thing with "Miss Smillas feeling for snow". And actually you had an empire but it was an empire with the same race in all areas, the "nordic" race. So I am just interested why Danish artists and intellectuals get involved in these intellectual discussions. They do not have this experience of the feeling of accumulated guilt that almost all other nations have, also the Dutch.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Now there is a different guilt. We are so well off that we are ashamed when looking at other cultures. Everything is charity now in Denmark. Everything is being promoted via radio and television, the Red Cross, the Doctors without borders...

Boris Groys: I ask myself: What is the deeper reason for that? Maybe it is exactly the way to compensate the lack of imperial past – to develop a new imperial present. As I saw your project, my immediate reaction was: This is a project of somebody coming out of a culture without a big family, without a lot of relatives. If you go to Mexico, if you go to China, you are confronted with towns and villages of 300 people who are all relatives, all having the same name...

Kristian von Hornsleth: My father pointed out that now there are more Hornsleths in Africa than there are in Denmark!

Boris Groys: Isn't it the case that the Danish are somehow looking for more relatives? They have too small families. It is a general nordic problem. If you look at Swedish cinema, it is always about tiny families, families being too small. At the beginning of the Dogma-movies, they were also about these tiny families and all the tensions inside these families. So isn't this a belated imperial extension in the form of helping the others? Driven by the desire to expand the family? To have more relatives? More public? A small country that needs more public, more people interested in it? I don't know if you read the last novel by Michel Houellebecq, "The possibility of an island"....

Kristian von Hornsleth: Yes, I have.

Boris Groys: What was interesting for me, as someone who is writing, is that the protagonist actually wants to produce a public because his clones are produced under the obligation to read his texts. So the idea is: We have no public, we have no relatives, we are producing texts and art but what is lacking is a public. So we have to invest in public. Because everything else is ok.

Kristian von Hornsleth: That makes sense. There are so many lonely destinies in that nordic area.

Jörg Scheller: Would you both agree that the only possibility left for provocation is affirmation? Affirmation of buying, selling, free trade, markets, economy, and then also unashamedly admitting what one is factually doing, no matter what it is, for instance, not pretending that one produces "high art" any more?

Boris Groys: In this context, probably. In general we know about this status of affirmation. Almost all my acquaintances in the art field know that and they are all making some sort of communal projects, producing some kind of artistic communities, investing in some kind of collaborative projects. So there is a general trend of unwillingness to be an individualist. It is very obvious everywhere. Everybody wants to collaborate with somebody else. It is absolutely everywhere in the art world, from Sao Paulo to Berlin. There is a desperate attempt to somehow organize a community of co-workers, and spectators, and relatives, and public, all kinds of people involved in what one is doing.
Kristian von Hornsleth: Some big companies actually speculate in creating markets for new products that we do not need yet. Now there's is a new tele-thing for kids, so they create a market for them. What's the problem? Just create the market!

Boris Groys: Yes, just create the market and pay the people so they are interested. You are paying them for being interested in your work. And I think this is very contemporary because the problem is not that you can not produce works or texts, the problem is that you do not have readers. You have to organize your readers.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Some say we are exploiting the people in Uganda. Do you agree with that?

Boris Groys: I would rather raise the question: Would it be possible not to do that? Is it possible not to exploit people? And if we do not do that – is it good for them or bad? To exploit people actually means to use people. It seems to be not a good thing, but on the other hand, if people are not usable, they are left alone and they are frustrated. So I think the human nature is that on the one hand, people want to be used because if they are not used, their life has no meaning, and on the other hand, they don't want to be used because they have their sovereignty and their self-esteem. So the human beings are contradictory – whatever you do, you always hurt them. If you use them, you hurt them, if you don't use them, you hurt them, too.

Kristian von Hornsleth: I read about your ideas of freedom. And that there is no freedom.

Boris Groys: There isn't.

Kristian von Hornsleth: And you were also talking about heroes, who are doing their own stuff...

Boris Groys: ...making their own wine...

Kristian von Hornsleth: Yes, I almost felt embarrassed when I read it because I financed the Uganda project myself, I went there, I took the photographs, I fought the bureaucrats – am I a hero?

Boris Groys: Yes, of course, you are a hero. There is one quotation of Hegel. He says that when speaking of heroes and the impossibility of heroes in modernity, we should ask ourselves what the heroes were drinking. And the heroes were drinking wine that they produced themselves and their families, and it is not possible, he says, that somebody who drinks coffee or tea could be a hero. But to follow a certain way of thinking one step further: Of course for the present civilization, the fate of the church is a kind of paradigm. Every kind of activity in the West somehow reproduces it. So if we ask ourselves how the church developed, then it developed from an institution to save your soul, from institutional salvation, to an institution of caring activities. This shift happened after the French Revolution. So after people realized that they have no souls, there is no need to save them. The problem was: how to install church nevertheless, and give some meaning to the church. The answer was to help the biopolitics to care for the bodies. So I ask myself: Isn't art going the same way? Because at least modern art emerged with the claim to save your soul, to create images that are images of ecstasy. And now, as it's over, art repeats the development that the church went through one and a half centuries ago.

Kristian von Hornsleth: I feel the same way. When I saw the collection of the ZKM in Karlsruhe, it was like a temple. And I felt as if I was looking at old epitaphs and old pieces that used to help people a long time ago. But some of them still help me. That still works. They still speak to me.

Boris Groys: To you, but not to the next generation, for example.

Jörg Scheller: But do you think that art still provides something like an "outside", some mystical or metaphysical outside? Because now, it seems as if everything has moved to the centre, down to earth, to the physical, immanent sphere. So is there still otherness to art, is there still an outside?

Boris Groys: I think there is almost only the outside. Because the illusions that there is no outside appears from the use of the word "we" – "we have no outside. Of course "we" have no outside. But there is no "we" any more. We have only me and you – and you are the outside. That's it. We can not speak about humanity any more. Humanity is the outside. So if earlier God was the outside or Nature was the outside, now humanity and human nature are the outside. If I have problems with my stomach, that connects me with humanity. I go to the doctor, I go to the hospital, I do not care about that, because it's just something that startled me, it's something from the outside, to be healed by what – no idea. I have no idea why that should help me and in what respect. It's precisely as if I would go to the church, like in the middle ages. Mankind and politics are getting more and more foreign to the individual, more and more outside. The colonialization of mankind that von Hornsleth practices actually, already shows that he has nothing to do with these people. The starting point for the project is that there is nothing that unites them. So if you want to deal with them, you have to create some visible, tangible, economical, political ties between you and the others because these ties don't exist as such. And that means that we have nothing else but the outside. We have to establish the ties. And it's like early religion: I am born and initially I have no connection with God, it must be advertised and incorporated, then I get one. Or we have to be integrated by schools, politics. That's why sexuality became such a problem – because we are fundamentally, originally disconnected.

Jörg Scheller: Is this what Baudrillard meant when he said that there is no "real" and no "social" anymore? Is this when simulation sets in, when we ourselves perpetually have to generate or simulate the ties and links between everything? And anyway, what is the difference between politics and art then – politics also attempt to create those links and ties.
Boris Groys: Less and less, I think. There was a relatively long time when art was more like economy with an art market. But I don't believe that the art market plays such a big role. What we have now actually is the expansion of art projects and exhibitions, and so on. And at the same time, politics are aestheticized up to a degree that is really extreme. So I think what he have in the end is a kind of creation of a political art and political aesthetics space which is fundamentally minded, like in old cultures, the cultures of the middle ages, we can not separate between aesthetics and politics or aesthetics or religion and I think we are going in that direction. One curator asked me to write a text about art in the German Bundestag. So he showed me all the works that are inside the Bundestag space and they were kind of average artworks. But then he showed me the space of Bundestag itself. It was an incredible artistic installation. It was the only artwork in this space I was really impressed by. If you go to this space, you have three entrances. On the entrance left, there is the word "Nein" (no), on the right "Ja" (yes), and in the centre "Null" (zero). They all go through these gates and they are checked and halted. And this alone is more art than anything else at this space.

Kristian von Hornsleth: It makes it contemporary.

Boris Groys: Extremely! I took photographs and asked the curator: Can I write about this? He said: Oh, no, no, no!

Jörg Scheller: I'd like to come back to the aspect of colonialization once again. I remember that when I first talked to

Boris Groys about the project, he said that it is often forgotten that even colonialization was based on humanist motives and humanist thinking. In your opinion, is a project like the Uganda project still based on humanist thinking?

Boris Groys: Absolutely. It is. But a different kind of humanist thinking. In the first wave of colonialization the idea was that mankind was as a unity and that that unity had to be brought to a political unity, too. But at that time, that really was the ideal of fundamental unity. And that fundamental unity also meant that people ought to have a name. And now with this neo-colonialization we have a completely different presupposition. A different presupposition of otherness. We have the presupposition that us and other people have nothing in common. Because we are living after the multicultural, we are living after the end of universal ideas like communism, and so on. In this situation we say that other people are just others, we have nothing to do with them. And on this presupposition, we start to organize ties with them as with others. Not with brothers. Now it is on the level of exchange and treaties. What is interesting in Hornsleth's case is that he tries, maybe I am wrong, to make Danish culture interesting for the world. With relatives, public...

Kristian von Hornsleth: ...marketing...

Boris Groys: But in marketing you paradoxically have to create the public for the marketing. It is not a marketing for a already existing consumer, you have to create this consumer because this consumer can not be presupposed. And that precisely is the end of the mass culture. There was this traditional concept of the artist, beginning with Baudelaire, described by Benjamin as someone who is creating art for the masses, for the anonymous spectator and for the anonymous reader. And then we keep us a conclusion: this anonymous reader does not exist. And if he exists, he does not read my works. So I have to create the audience. You have to provoke scandal, make something that seems to be important, create a theme, and after that, you write something.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Ok, we created this public. But what do you think about the other side, about the "African problem", about this great, beautiful continent, where they are fighting all the time and dying of Aids? Even though the Uganda project might appear cynical or purely capitalistic, there is clearly a side to it that is about art which really can help somebody out there.

Boris Groys: We are living in an interesting time where a guy gets a nobel price for finding a possibility to involve all these people into a capitalistic market. That is quite a turn. Ideologically and politically it is quite a new development. But I must confess that I am not interested in Africa somehow, personally, so I have no relationship to it. I somehow don't have this romantic dream, you know, at the heart of darkness, that's a cliché for me. Somehow I don't have any attitude. Concerning your art project, I am much more interested in the causes: What are the causes to go there? That must be some kind of worry, some kind of uncertainty in your own country.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Boredom?

Boris Groys: Yes, but boredom is not enough. I think you have to get nervous at a certain point.

Kristian von Hornsleth: I am nervous.

Boris Groys: So is Lars von Trier.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Yes, he can't even take an airplane.

Jörg Scheller: His hands are shaking, he's trembling all the time.

Boris Groys: So why this breed of nervous nordic artists? Think of Kierkegaard...

Kristian von Hornsleth: Oh yes, he was nervous!

Boris Groys: Absolutely nervous.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Ingmar Bergman?

Boris Groys: He was not so nervous. He pretended. But Hamsun was.

Kristian von Hornsleth: Strindberg?

Boris Groys: Partially. He was more crazy than nervous. So you have to be really nervous and you have to have this kind of anguish. But it seems to me that after you made this trip you will live more quietly.

Jörg Scheller: That's what most people tell you after they return from Africa. They go to this wild continent and they stay there for some time and when they come back, they are really calm. They think it is a big cure. Maybe it is. I have one last question: Do you think that there is a new notion of satanism in capitalism? The focus on the ego, the believe that it is most important to benefit your own ego?

Boris Groys: No, it is not about the pleasure principle. The satanic and the demonic is a very hedonistic attitude. You feel pleasure when hurting people, it is sadistic. In capitalism you just practise your own profit, you find your own happiness, and that is good for everybody because the world is a sum of individual effort. So if you make more individual effort the sum will be greater. So it is rather a positivistic and utilitarian attitude. It is not hedonism. It is not demonic.

Boris Groys, born 1947, professor of philosophy and art science at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, Germany

Jörg Scheller, born 1979, art historian and journalist, Stuttgart, Germany

This text was first published in the book: The Hornsleth Village Project Uganda, Copenhagen 2007